Head west on Jackson Road about six miles out of downtown Ann Arbor, and you’ll find what is quickly becoming a national treasure right in our own backyard. Motawi Tileworks has been making handmade American art tile since 1992 and is now sold in over 300 shops and galleries across the country. But let’s back up a bit.
Twenty-five years ago, a young woman with a restless spirit and a drive for business and creativity, convinced her parents to help her buy a house on Packard Road with a 600 square foot garage so she could hook up a kiln. It was there that Motawi Tileworks was born. Nawal Motawi began making tiles in that garage and selling them at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. It wasn’t long before she had her first fireplace design, and then another, and then, had to move the Tileworks into an actual building. She settled on west Ann Arbor where now, in a building nearly 20 times the size of the original Tileworks, her businesses remain. Yes, plural. In 2011, Nawal purchased the company that produces the clay used to make Motawi tiles, Rovin Ceramics, and moved it from Taylor to Ann Arbor. Rovin is a mile from Motawi, up Jackson road on Dino Drive.
Motawi Tileworks has 38 full-time creative, quirky employees who thrive in the company’s robust and intentional corporate culture, which emphasizes positivity, process and teamwork. Motawi likes to think that it is to tile what Zingerman’s is to good food. The best ingredients, sometimes pricey, but the quality is second to none. Both companies are Ann Arbor born, and remain rooted in this community. “Motawi has flourished because Ann Arborites have a sophisticated aesthetic and a deep appreciation of well executed hand made work,” says Nawal Motawi.
Like Zingerman’s, Motawi is open book. Employees not only know the finances of the company, but also are responsible for individual line items, which must be reported each week at a staff huddle. Motawi is also known for its innovative application of Toyota-style production to small shop manufacturing. Motawi uses this method to maintain continuous stock of art tiles to supply over 300 shops and galleries across the country and its own internet and retail locations. Motawi also has three full-time project designers on staff who not only create installations such as fireplaces and backsplashes, but also design custom large-scale projects such as murals and installations for public spaces, such as the 17 Motawi tile quilts throughout the University of Michigan Medical Center.
Motawi isn’t shy about how the tile is made. The gallery shop and Boneyard (Motawi’s popular seconds area where it’s a challenge to find any imperfection) are open Monday-Friday from 10am-5pm and Saturday 10am-3pm. There is a free public tour every Thursday at 11am. Private tours are available by appointment on other days. The Thursday tours end at lunchtime, and the friendly Motawi staff is always happy to recommend one of the great west Ann Arbor area eateries to its customers. Some of the staff favorites within a few minutes are: